Esposito: Forever the Gentleman in Defeat, Ralph Branca, 1926-2016

It isn’t often the losing pitcher of such a historic moment in baseball history becomes as celebrated as the “hero” of the moment, but that was Ralph Branca, one of the classiest gentlemen in the history of baseball.

He threw the pitch. He threw that pitch. The pitch that has resonated through time as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” And for many, being labeled with that dark stain on their blotter would have forever ruined their lives, forcing a retreat into a self-punished mental prison.

Instead, Branca learned to embrace his role, accepted his fate, and in essence, excelled by it.

It is with that acknowledgement of the classy acceptance of his fate that we sadly mourn his passing Wednesday at the age of 90.

The baseball world learned of Branca’s passing via twitter by his son-in-law, former manager Bobby Valentine, who long ago married Branca’s only child, their daughter, Mary.

Tributes and recollections already are stockpiling every corner of the baseball community, with perhaps one of the most representative statements issued by the Commissioner, Rob Manfred.

“Ralph was a true gentleman who earned universal respect in the game he loved and served so well. Ralph’s participation in the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was eclipsed by the grace and sportsmanship he demonstrated following one of the game’s signature moments. He is better remembered for his dedication to the members of the baseball community. He was an inspiration to so many of us.”

Branca pitched for a dozen years in the majors (1944-56), and was more than just an average hurler, a three-time All-Star with a 88-68 record (3.79 ERA, 1.37 WHIP), but he is best remembered for just one pitch.

You know the story. Oct. 3, 1951. Crosstown rivals Brooklyn Dodgers and NY Giants were in the lifetime-making moments of the deciding game of their three-game playoff to determine the National League Champion. Essentially, it was the first NLCS without that title.

The Dodgers were up, 4-2, bottom of the ninth, Polo Grounds. Bobby Thomson headed for the batter’s box with two on. Don Newcombe was pitching quite a gem for “The Bums,” but was faltering. Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen had Carl Erskine and Branca warming up. But “Oisk,” as he was known in Brooklynese, was bouncing curveballs in the pen, giving coach Clyde Sukeforth the impression that Branca was a better choice to “close,” despite having already yielded a home run to Thomson earlier in the playoff series.

In came Branca. And out went the baseball, as Thomson turned a fastball into the home run to left that will never be forgotten, triggering the crazy, “The Giants Won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant!” repetitive broadcast shouts.

Some years later, Branca learned the Giants had a sign-stealing method that may have allowed Thomson to know a fastball was coming, but to his death, the Giants outfielder denied this info.

But here was one of baseball’s ironies. Instead of becoming bitter enemies, Branca and Thomson became best-of-friends after their life-altering connection, attending ballgames, card shows, personal appearances, other baseball events, and even vacationing together. They both came to relish their participation. Yes, it was their claims to fame, even if both had other moments to revel in, albeit not always quite as memorable.

Branca’s first day in the majors – April 15, 1947 – was also the first day of another celebrated Brooklyn Dodger, Jackie Robinson. And it was Branca who eagerly stood with Robinson when some of their teammates were not quite as accepting. (Some of those Dodgers were soon ex-Dodgers.)

Branca might even have had a shot at Rookie of the Year honors in ’47 were it not for his history-making teammate. He enjoyed an All-Star season going 21-12, 2.67, and the Bums did make it to the Fall Classic, falling to the crosstown Yankees.

Branca’s record for his first three seasons was 48-26. He was not always a starter for his career. Only 188 of his 322 games were as a starter.

He was claimed on waivers by the Tigers in July of ’53 and pitched there for almost exactly one year. In July of ’54, he was released by Detroit, but soon picked up by the Yankees, where he went 1-0 in five appearances (3 starts).

In ’55, Branca pitched in the minors for the Minneapolis Millers, and by the following summer, he was considered retired. But at an appearance at the Yankee’s Oldtimers game, he discovered his velocity had been resuscitated, and he went back to the Dodgers for one last two-inning appearance.

Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was the son of an Italian father and Jewish mother, the 15th of 17 children (now that’s a team!). The tall righthander (6’3”) was a local product, raised in Mt. Vernon, NY.

You also might not know that an aunt and an uncle of Branca’s were killed at concentration camps during World War II.

Branca was just 25 when he threw that pitch. And for the next 65 years of his life, he lived with that moment with such class and dignity.

Rest in peace, Ralph. Class all the way.

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